Marc H. Ellis

Date of Award


Document Type

Dissertation - Restricted

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

William D. Miller

Second Advisor

Robert P. Hay

Third Advisor

Lawrence S. Cunningham

Fourth Advisor

Francis Paul Prucha

Fifth Advisor

Michael Phayer


In his book The Diary of a Country Priest, George Bernanos wrote "How little we know what a human life really is -- even our own. To judge us by what we call our actions .is probably as futile as to judge us by our dreams." Though Bernanos was not referring to Peter Maurin, the mystery of human life called forth in the passage especially applies to Maurin's life. What do we really know of a man who, though his writings were circulated around the country and spoke at length with hundreds of people, was a wanderer and revealed little of his background or interior life to even the best of friends? What words can convey the inner workings of a man who decided in his fifties to give up everything he owned and to embark on a life of voluntary poverty in order to bring the person and the social order back to the teachings of Christ? How can one describe the mixture of tenacity, that saw him hold to this vision despite the obstacles, and gentleness, that rarely allowed harsh words or actions? To be sure, few modern biographers would subscribe to Bernanos' statement or to the corollary: that we can approach the meaning of a person's life only by allowing the person's freedom not to be completely objectified and defined. After thinking about Maurin for years and laboring at writing his biography, I can say without apology that, in a profound way, Maurin's life remains a

This should not surprise us. In many ways, Maurin was a prophet and a prophet always remains a mystery. He comes from the past to critique and judge the present. He proposes solutions that seem simplistic. yet on closer examination are profound. He proposes ideas that challenge contemporary reality yet claims no originality. Though I have struggled to remain outside, inevitably I have been drawn into this mystery and have been changed by it.

Those who preceded me in writing about Peter Maurin have similarly been drawn into this mystery. The first and most prolific writer on Maurin is Dorothy Day, a woman who gained her vocation through his teachings. She has invoked his presence in her columns in The Catholic Worker, newspaper from its inception in 1933 and in her auto-biographical books, The Long Loneliness (New York: Harper and Row, 1952) and Loaves and Fishes (New York: Harper and Row, 1963). It goes without saying that hen recording of Maurin's thoughts and activities have been invaluable to my own work. The second serious writer on Maurin is Brendan Anthony O'Grady who wrote "Peter Maurin, Propagandist" (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Ottawa,1954), a work which explored Maurin's technique of agitation. Especially helpful to me were O'Grady's appendices which contained letters from Maurin's family and friends, and gave details and insight into Maurin's life prior to the founding of the Catholic Worker movement. The third writer is Arthur Sheehan, who was a friend and disciple of Maurin's and who attempted the first biography of Maurin, titled Peter Maurin: Gay Believer (New York: Hanover House, 1959). As a friend Sheehan was privy to Maurin's activities and conversations, and as a biographer Sheehan was a diligent researcher. While this proximity hindered objectivity to some degree, Sheehap's biography was also stymied by the publisher's desire that personality rather than ideas be emphasized. Thus Maurin's most important years after the founding of the Catholic Worker movement are handled inadequately. Though there has been another work since Sheehan's biography, one that attempted to trace the influence of Maurin's early life in France on his subsequent life and thought in America (Anthony W. Novitsky, "The Ideological Development of Peter Maurin's Green Revolution," [Ph.D.
dissertation,· University of New York at Buffalo, 1976]), Sheehan's research into Maurin's life in France remains the starting point ,for the reconstruction of this part of Maurin's life. My debt to Sheehan is duly noted in Chapter 1.

The fourth writer, William D. Miller, is the most interesting of those who have written on Maurin for he was the first professionally trained intellectual to show interest in the Catholic Worker movement in general and Maurin in particular. In his book A Harsh and Dreadful Lave: Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement (New York: Liveright, 1973), Miller sees Maurin as a gentle man who found his freedom in the Catholic tradition by voluntarily adopting poverty. Though the focus of Miller's work was on the story of the Catholic Worker movement, he, at the same time, called for a full biography of Maurin. It is under his able (I would say inspired) direction that I have thought through Maurin's place in the twentieth century and completed, the biography itself.



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